What's really going on in North Korea

It was a news story that read like the plot of a Peter Sellers or Mike Myers picture: Vertically challenged dictator of a starving populace, overweight and addicted to imported Swiss cheese, falls off his high heels and breaks both ankles. He is sent off to rehab and, in his absence, rivals jostle for preeminence as the world anxiously looks on and speculates.

Rather than the plot of an upcoming movie, this was one story about North Korea when "The Marshal," Kim Jong Un (military experience: none), the third-generation Kim to rule the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, disappeared from view for weeks.

The international media were feverish with speculation about a possible power shift in Pyongyang. So-called experts took turns hypothesizing on Kim's health and his grip on power. When one high-profile North Korean defector suggested that the policymaking unit of the Workers' Party might have enough influence to occasionally contradict Kim, the mainstream media distorted his words into the announcement of a "coup." Much of what has been said and written over the last few weeks has muddied the waters rather than cleared them.

Most experts' key mistake is to treat each sign from Pyongyang as if it is sent to the international community, when Kim and the Workers' Party have a more urgent audience: their own people. The story for the outside world was Kim's "disappearance." For the North Korean people, indications are that the big news was his reappearance, and what he looked like when he did: thinner and leaning on a cane.

Image, in North Korea, is everything. The Kim family mythology is the foundation of its statehood narrative. A big part of that is that the Kims — the dictator dynasty started with Kim's grandfather, "Great Leader" Kim Il Sung, and father, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Il — are the purest, most virtuous, most perfect humans, superhuman even. They cannot be shown to be wrong, to be weak, to fail. The state goes to great lengths to maintain this. The goiter on the Great Leader's neck was airbrushed out of portraits and photos, as were the Dear Leader's paunch, wrinkles and liver spots.

There is a "longevity institute" in Pyongyang, according to North Korean defectors, where the nation's top doctors work to try to extend each Kim's life, using citizens of the same age, build and "physical characteristics" as the leader as guinea pigs. Both the late Kims spent their old age allegedly sleeping with teenage girls and receiving transfusions of the blood of young men in hopes that either act would rejuvenate them. And when the Supreme Leader and Dear Leader died, the party media told the people the Kims died of heart attacks brought on by "heavy strains" and "overwork" — not death by weakness but by strength: death caused by too much superhuman striving in the name of the people.

In the West, a head of state breaking an ankle is an accident — at worst, if someone stood nearby with a camera phone, YouTube fodder. In North Korea, it is another dangerous tear in the wool thrown over the people's eyes. It is unprecedented for the party media to acknowledge that a Kim — they of Supreme Leader blood — could be injured or in poor health.

Is it possible, as theorized by some, that the young, inexperienced Kim is only a figurehead for some party unit that holds the true power in Pyongyang, or that there are influential party members working to reform the country? Of course. But it seems equally possible that, out of ignorance, we have whipped up a misguided, dangerous frenzy — dangerous in that it obscures accurate understanding of a rogue state that, after all, has nuclear capabilities — over Kim's absence. He could well have been kept out of sight simply because his people, who are taught to believe he is a demigod, would be shaken to the core to see him in a wheelchair or on crutches.

We in the West have been repeatedly proved wrong in our predictions about the plucky little dictatorship that could. We just knew, for example, that it would crumble within months after the Berlin Wall fell, and again when Kim Il Sung died. It didn't. We felt certain that Kim Jong Il, the family black sheep, would never take over; indeed, that father-to-son dynastic rule would never be accepted by a state governed by the principles of socialism. We even go on calling North Korea a communist or socialist state, when it has long ceased to be either and is in fact a military dictatorship run by one family and its cronies.

North Korea is, by all accounts, on the brink of enormous change. It is a failed state, isolated and mostly reliant on foreign aid. It exists in an ideological reality that is anachronistic and contradictory. Discontent is growing, with "illegal" black markets in every town and corruption rampant. Citizens repeat the propaganda they are force-fed, declaring themselves the luckiest people in the world, knowing full well they are not. They have DVDs, VHS tapes and photos, bought from the Chinese, showing them how much more peaceful and affluent four-fifths of the rest of the world is.

They struggle to reconcile the “truths” they are hard-wired to believe with the truths they see with their own eyes. The poor, starving and beaten are fed up. The elite, who know how much more luxurious life is in Japan, China, South Korea or the West, are fed up. The picture we have of North Koreans — homogenous, blindly obedient, brainwashed people — is incomplete, in spite of major news outlets dangerously and inexplicably acting as if it is.

The change, when it comes, will present risk and opportunity for the West. China, South Korea, Russia and Japan will also have an interest. We willfully misunderstand and misrepresent this regime at our peril.

Paul Fischer is the author of the forthcoming book A Kim Jong-Il Production.

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